By now almost everyone across the country is familiar with the essential need for affordable housing. Some cities more than others face this need more severely and Atlanta is one such city.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has been detrimental to all American municipalities, but in cities like Atlanta with already existing affordable housing needs, the virus’s impact has been notably devastating.
Tremendous housing progress had been made in Atlanta before COVID-19, and the city had aggressive and specific plans in place to continue increasing its affordable housing stock. Unfortunately, the international novel coronavirus pandemic has temporarily slowed those plans down.
Affordable housing is housing that someone can actually afford. It is not housing that a family has to struggle to pay for after they choose which bills to prioritize that month.
Nor is it housing with rents or mortgages so high that extended family members or friends are forced to move in together in too small living quarters in hopes that the group will be able to pool their money and come up with the rent each month.
Nor should affordable housing contribute to anyone engaging in any illegal activity to supplement their income in order to pay their bills and provide for their family. Lastly, affordable housing includes a location element of being within a reasonable distance from jobs that pay living wages.
The textbook definition of affordable housing is “housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a family’s income.”
For a renter, that 30 percent includes utilities and for those with a mortgage, the 30 percent includes homeownership costs such as mortgage interest, property taxes, and maintenance.
It’s clear that, the lower one’s income, the more difficult or maybe even impossible it is to find affordable housing unless specific policies and programs are legislated.
Atlanta has long had strong leadership that kept the city on an upward trajectory. This meant businesses continuously relocating to the city, singles, families, and young people moving to Atlanta in never before seen numbers. Everyone in the city felt this growth in one way or another.
With the increase in population, land in Atlanta has also become more and more valuable. With the relocation of corporate headquarters and the emergence of Atlanta, begun during the 1996 Olympics, as an international city, the value of living and working and simply enjoying the city has been skyrocketing. This growth and prosperity have been a good thing. Actually, a great thing.
The success and wellbeing of American cities, the fabric of our country, is one of the things that makes our country as a whole so strong. However, it also makes the availability of affordable housing that much more essential.
Since land is expensive and incomes are rising in Atlanta, real estate developers are able to buy land and develop projects that meet the ever-increasing market demands but also that reap the largest financial benefits.
As the city grows and prospers, it becomes more and more difficult for affordable housing developers to site projects in such highly sought after areas within the city. This is why political leadership in Atlanta (or in any city with real affordable housing needs) plays such a crucial role.
As a government that understands the value of socioeconomic diversity, the city of Atlanta does and has for some time, incentivized and played an active part in creating programs that encourage developers to build affordable housing communities and develop projects that include affordable units.
Most recently, the city created a Housing Affordability Action plan which includes measures such as creating incentives to attract public sector investment, the redevelopment of blighted and vacant properties, and pledged an investment of one billion dollars to combat rising housing costs and the displacement of residents.
One specific policy that citizens, business owners, and the overall Atlanta community was proud of was the Mayor’s administrative order calling for the allocation of $100 million in Housing Opportunity Bonds to increase the supply of affordable housing.
Unfortunately, this bond issuance has been slowed due to COVID-19. The issuance was going to allow the city to do even more than it already had done to increase affordable housing by creating 20,000 units by 2026.
This $100-million bond issuance would have been supported by the city’s general fund and would result in more money specifically going towards the creation of affordable housing units throughout the city.
“Teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other residents should be able to live in Atlanta without going broke,” said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Feb. 17, about one month before the COVID-19 pandemic was officially announced. “The issuance of these bonds will make that a reality.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has been realized, the bond issuance was put on hold. As a result, the City of Atlanta will experience over $200 million in lost revenue over the next few years due to the virus.
The Atlanta City Council had to get creative with ideas on how affordable housing funding, specifically the housing bond can still move forward.
According to a report by city CFO Roosevelt Council, funding the debt payment for the housing bond with smaller payments (approximately $5 million) for two years and larger annual payments (approximately $14 million) in future years could allow the legislation to move forward. The legislation even allowed for payments to be stretched out over a period of 50 years.
Working towards strategies and financing that advances affordable housing despite the pandemic is crucial given that even before the virus, less than 30 percent of Atlanta Public
School teachers lived near the schools where they teach. They simply can not afford it. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, city employees, working professionals, students, senior citizens are in many ways priced out of a booming city.
According to Diane Yentel, the President and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, “Even before COVID-19 came to this country, we had a shortage of seven million homes affordable and available to the lowest income people.”
That means for every 100 of the lowest income renters in the United States, there are fewer than 37 homes affordable and available to them. Once again, this was before COVID-19.
COVID-19 will make this situation even worse because government funds that were going towards affordable housing are now allocated elsewhere, many workers are no longer going to work because many businesses have shut down and many families have lost income earners as family members get sick from COVID-19 or suffer from other issues such as food instability, mental health and a variety of other issues.
The postponement of the $100 million bond issuance could impact Atlanta in major ways. Although there is general understanding and appreciation for the reasons behind putting the bond allocation on hold, the timing couldn’t be worse.
The impact of COVID-19 on Atlanta’s housing needs will be particularly negative. First, of course, because of the devastating health crisis but now there is also a housing crisis in effect with the postponement of the Mayor’s affordable housing bonds.
Atlanta has seen unprecedented and impressive growth in the last 10 years which has created a true need for housing for working-class, everyday people.
This includes very very low-income individuals all the way to professional, white-collar workers and families who reasonably want to spend only a limited amount of their income on housing needs.
The direct impact of COVID-19 is hard to quantify.
The need to reallocate city resources during this crisis from affordable housing initiatives to immediate emergency funding and programs for healthcare, lost revenues, food insecurities and immediate housing needs has forced the city to become more flexible and creative with how affordable housing needs will now be addressed.
The city now must focus on both longer sustainable solutions such as the 100 million dollar bond issuance in addition to programs that address immediate short-term emergency needs.
One such immediate program to which funds have been allocated is Bottoms’ and the Atlanta Housing’s Rent Relief Program. This program provides rental relief and subsidies for those impacted by the pandemic.
Other relief programs include: providing up to two months of rental forgiveness or reductions to those housing authority residents who have suffered a loss in income due to COVID-19. Atlanta Housing will pay rent directly to the property owner).
Another program provides assistance or forgiveness of rent to Housing Choice Voucher residents. Residents of Atlanta Housing-owned high rises, scattered-site housing developments, or any Atlanta Housing-subsidized unit within a multifamily community also may receive similar rental assistance.
The city will also grant additional rental assistance for those suffering extended hardships due to COVID-19.
And lastly, the Mayor and Council also approved $7 million to fund emergency needs for children, seniors, the homeless, small businesses, and also city employee technology needs to work from home.
Although Atlanta faces unimaginable losses due to decreases in sales tax payments, property taxes, and revenue typically earned by the city, bold actions have been taken to protect and support residents and businesses.
At an expert panel event hosted by ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, Megan Sandel, co-director of the GROW Clinic at the Boston Medical Center, discussed the relationship between housing and physical and mental health.
She noted that the coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted how housing can serve much like a “vaccine” that helps foster greater social equity and promote overall well-being.
“You cannot separate your health from where you live,” she said.
This truth has never been more evident. Affordable housing is not just a basic need or (according to some), a right, but it also plays a significant role in the health and wellness of an overall community, especially during a crisis.
Now, whenever the city moves forward with the $100 million housing bond, as a result of COVID-19, there likely will be an even greater appreciation for the funding and understanding of issues that go hand in hand with housing needs because of all that has been learned and experienced from this novel coronavirus.
READ MORE: “The Coronavirus is Exposing how Vital Stable Housing is to Healthcare”, 4/9/20 www.fastcompany.com).